Monday 14 November 2011

Collapsing dreams

Middle-class Nogent sur Marne to the east of Paris is not the kind of place you would expect to find eastern-bloc styled architecture, but the suburbs of Paris are in fact liberally sprinkled with such designs. Although Nogent was not one of the 'banlieu rouge' (or ceinture rouge) towns, in another recent era it did apparently share some of the same social policies - and dreams - as its more left-leaning neighbours.

In the centre of the town stands pure concrete functionalism. Housed here is the town's market, with a larger sports centre looming above it. It reminds me of the buildings of Hungary, a country I lived in for a year, and everything about this structure seems familiar - right up to the font face (and colour) used for the sign on the sports centre.

A giant red 'municipal' - a word announcing public ownership, something that is becoming more and more difficult to find in a world of PPPs. Here is equipment provided for the town's population, good food, and sport for the soul. Healthy, happy people, the dream of all local authorities. Significantly, no fast-food or soft drink logos are visible inside or outside the building.

This 1960s vision of city life though is in steep decline. The structure is condemned, destined to be replaced by a new model. Few will mourn the passing of this installation, judged to be ugly and impractical today, but it should not be forgotten from which dreams this building was born.

Earlier this year I visited the Nogent town museum and discovered an exhibition - a short history of shopping in the Paris region in the last two centuries. Amongst pictures of 19th century market stalls and 1960s supermarkets, I was struck by one particular photo - a black and white image of a building crushed under the weight of exceptional snowfall.

I can find almost no evidence online for this event, and the photo now seems like something I dreamed. The only reference is two lines on a website - 'the market in Nogent sur Marne, built in 1912, suffered a terrible accident in 1942 and was demolished. The new market was built a little further north in 1970'. As I remember it from the exhibition, it was an accident that killed dozens of people, trapped during a simple shopping trip. Death and destruction stands out when placed alongside smiling market stall holders and brightly coloured fruit and veg.

1942 - 1970. Apparently it took the town authorities 28 years to build a new market building, but by the time it was built, the era had changed. People wanted solidity. Historical buildings were subject to fire and collapse, and new dreams were needed.

But how long do dreams last? All buildings begin with a vision, a sketch, an idea, a design that tries to fit with the desires of those that will use them. This building was hefty practicality, a functional strength that reassured those who still remembered war and disaster. Ironically, it is now labelled as unsafe itself, and not up to today's standards. Born the same year as me, it is now defunct. Will the new dream last longer?


Owen said...

There is no shortage of hideous architecture around Paris... Re-inforced concrete may not be remembered as man's greatest invention.

Adam said...

Owen - I don't find this building to be hideous though, but rather of its time. It's quite striking in its surroundings and has clearly served a purpose. Times change though, as do our tastes and desires.

Jeff Mings said...

The building does exude the soulless look of cold-war Soviet-style projects. Still interesting to see. Thanks for all of your updates.


tonton_flaneur said...

I don't really find it hideous either, just sort of "trapped in time"...reminds me a bit of Boston City Hall in Boston, MA at Government Centre (which used to be Scollay Square when I was a kid), talk about a building trapped in another time! Merci for the insight!

Anne said...

Isn't that the town where they relocated the lone remaining iron pavilion from Les Halles? Always meant to get there. Never made it (yet!)

PeterParis said...

Fortunately other parts of Nogent are much more charming! Let's see what will be built after this one. It's terrible to see how some great plans like Beaugrenelle, les Halles... have not resisted to our present taste and have to, or are, replaced after only a few decades. Will what we build today be there in 30 years?

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